The Great Alone Book Review

The Great Alone (novel)
By Kristin Hannah

I’ve never been to Alaska but this book makes me want to visit. Not only does the author do a fine job describing the majestic scenery of Alaska, she’s also able to capture who the regular Alaskan people are, how they live and work in the outback, logging and clearing roads in the short summer, and smoking strips of marinated salmon for the long, bitter winter. How can you not appreciate an author who is observant and sensitive enough to distinguish the difference between a lower-48, night sky (black) and the winter sky of Alaska (a velvet blue with ambient light from the snow-covered terrain). I loved reading Hannah’s prose.

But all that glorious setting and description is just the frosting on the cake. The cake being a wonderfully involving story of a family in the 70’s trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The story is told from the daughter, Leni’s perspective. She’s a lovely, auburn-haired teenager, an only child, trying to survive not only the Alaskan wilderness (“there’s a hundred ways to die in Alaska”), but her troubled parents. Her violent, unstable father, Ernt, is an ex-POW from the Viet Nam war. Leni loves her sweet, chain-smoking mother, but cannot understand why she doesn’t leave her abusive father. Ernt becomes part of the extremist fringe in Alaska, wanting to keep the world away and live “back to the earth.” He wakes Leni up in the middle of the night to train her how to quickly assemble and load her gun in case of government attack.

When Leni discovers love with the son of her father’s worst enemy, Tom Walker, the town patriarch and progressive, I couldn’t help but think of the family conflict in Romeo and Juliet. I’m relieved to report this story takes an entirely different direction than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leni struggles to adulthood, but finally discovers her own voice and freedom.

I can’t say how much I liked this book. Hannah does all the right things with character development and plot. I stayed up until midnight last night reading. And that, blog readers, is probably the best recommendation and review I can give any book.

Idaho Book Review

Idaho (novel)
By Emily Ruskovich

I wonder if all books entitled with a state name don’t find an automatic audience of thousands of people within that state wanting to read the book. James Michener, an old epic author from the 70’s and 80’s used to title his novels after their state setting: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. So, as an Idahoan, I approached Emily Ruskovich’s novel with a lot of anticipation. What would she say about our state and how would she characterize the people that live here?

I’m pleased to report Ruskovich writes a sensitive and human story of two women living in a rural area of north Idaho driven by love to the same damaged man, Wade. Wade is a homesteader and day laborer who has some kind of early onset dementia (his disease is never fully explained).

Though Ruskovich writes beautifully and expressively about simple things like a minister leaving a bowl of pears for a prison inmate, this is a brutal, tragic tale of domestic violence. Wade’s wife, Jenny, apparently in a jealous rage, murders their younger daughter, May. It appears to be a crime of passion, but the reader is not sure what happened. With Wade’s forgetfulness and Jenny’s obsessive love, there’s even a lingering question of whether Jenny was actually the murderer. The mystery of that fateful day is further amplified by the disappearance of the older daughter, June, who had a troubled relationship with her younger sister, May. It’s questions like these that propel the narrative along and keep the reader guessing.

Though Ruskovich is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, some readers will be put off with the way the author jumps back and forth in time and between different character perspectives. Interestingly, readers are never privy to Wade’s perspective about what happened to his family. This story could have been too dark, but the ending is satisfying. There is always room for redemption in even the most despairing situation.

Getting Comfortable with Work

Getting Comfortable with Work

“Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. Ed was a colleague of mine and a Buddhist, so this was his response to the trials and tribulations of the workaday world. To me work was a much bigger venture. It was your career and your destiny. When things went wrong at work, it was a major crisis.  My thinking was how can I make this better?

But Ed was more matter-of-fact about the whole idea of work. He was a low-keyed educational psychologist that believed in energy chakras and hypnosis as much as Jungian theory or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Work was just one part of living to Ed. Work was not a gift, it was a necessity, and like food, water, and air, you didn’t think about it much, you just did it. In the big picture, work moved everyone and everything, forward.

I wanted to ask Ed, what about all those people who are passionate about their work? What about those people that say they can’t believe they get paid to do what they do, because they love it so much? Some people don’t just chop wood and carry water. Their work defines them and gives their life meaning.

Yet, if I was honest with myself, and thought about all the different kinds of work I’d done in my own life, I’d have to admit much of my work was in fact, chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these menial tasks than anything I did in my career as an educator.

I read a book many years ago by Carol Shields called The Stone Diaries.  It was about a woman at the turn of the century who’d worn a path leading out from her back door to her garden and root cellar.  That path happened because every day she walked it to gather the fruits and vegetables needed to feed her family. It was mind-numbing, walking this same route on a daily basis.  But if she didn’t do the valuable work of food gathering, who would?

I know people who actually are happy doing mind-numbing work.  I also know someone who got burned-out doing work he thought was a passion. My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but still he felt content and happy with his job.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle. His comment: “The art took too much out of me.  It just became work. Frankly, I dreaded doing it.”

As I sit here typing on my computer I’m wondering if writing has become my work. Has it moved from a passion to chopping wood and carrying water? Maybe it’s not so bad, doing something you know and that feels comfortable.  It doesn’t hurt either, when your back rest is a pillow.

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

 

The Importance of Great Alpha Waves

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really pissed. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned an illness they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same illness and worse. Her nerves were shot, her back too, as well as her eyes, ears, and female parts. Miraculously, Gertrude lived into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before. Suddenly I realized my body was fallible. For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I guess that’s a good thing.  So, I took some small comfort in his prognosis, at least until the next wave of anxiety over my health hit me. It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippy doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare the bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

That’s the thing about reading, whether it be The Divided Mind or The Well Body Book: reading changes you. Though I read The Well Body Book forty years ago, I can still quote it, and it’s still meaningful to me today. Maybe John will someday say this about The Divided Mind.  Who knows?

Burning Fences Book Review

Burning Fences (a Western memoir)
by Craig Lesley

Imagine a beat-up old trailer sitting off a gravel road in Monument, Oregon not too far from John Day.  Dried grass and weeds grow up around a cable spool used as a table outside the trailer, and a pile of Oly beer cans sit by the front door. This is the home of Craig Lesley’s father Rudell, a crusty trapper and elk hunter who smells like skunk pee, the bait he uses to trap Coyote.

It’s detail and descriptions like this that make Northwest author, Craig Lesley’s memoir so much fun to read. As a North-westerner myself, I’m familiar with the places Lesley grew up in: the Dalles, Madras, and Baker City, Oregon. But Burning Fences is more than just setting and place: Lesley writes a good story too.

After being abandoned as an infant by his father Rudell, Lesley spent much of his growing up years looking for validation from fatherly figures like Vern, his abusive step-father and Oscar, the uncle that owned a sporting goods store. Lesley gets his big chance to reconnect with Rudell, when his father suddenly shows up in his hospital room after Lesley’s been injured in a farm machinery accident.  Rudell’s flippancy, saying his son got hurt, “playing chicken with a mint chopper” says a great deal about who Rudell is and how much he is willing to give to this new father-son relationship.

Yet despite his father’s lack of commitment—or maybe because of it—Lesley confesses that Rudell’s abandonment helped defined his life. “Rudell’s neglect motivated me to raise an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.”

When Wade, Lesley’s foster son, sets fire to Rudell’s fence post pile, Lesley finally recognizes he cannot control either Wade or Rudell’s behavior. Only then is Lesley willing to burn fences and abandon the expectations he’d had of himself and others.